Maine Voices: Focus on individuality has made it harder for U.S. to fight COVID | #students | #parents

BATH – In my 93 years, I have never seen America so splintered and ineffective.

The pandemic is a great challenge, as is reckoning with widespread racism, but America has long been a global leader – in two world wars, and in improving the world community.

Yet the world now views us as doing the poorest job of containing COVID-19 and Americans are embarrassingly excluded from visiting Europe.

Dictatorial China, serving more than four times our population, recorded only 4,641 COVID-19 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, compared to our 135,000 deaths – and counting.

China’s success came from the unity of its reaction, while our failure is highlighted by our depth of infighting: whether to open states and communities or not; whether you should wear a mask or not, and whether to respect social distance or not.

Further, if you have hope that a vaccine might someday end all the uncertainty, 50 percent of Americans recently indicated that once one is found, they will not use it.

With attitudes like this, COVID-19 will always be able to find ripe targets within our democracy, leaving all of us at risk.

Let me be bold enough to suggest a solution that I believe would ultimately transform our democracy.

Our human species survived, where all others became extinct, because from the beginning, we depended upon each other. This is best expressed in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

In our case, the Founding Fathers established our democracy on two principles: individuality and equality. Accepting slavery compromised the principles, but it was that or nothing. So their gift to us was really an inspiring vision: That someday, we Americans would build a democracy on the pillars of individuality and equality.

The power of these principles is expressed in All for one; and One for all. We are to create a democracy in which, regardless of our differences, we support all of our fellow citizens, and in return, they support us. This would ensure an incredibly powerful democracy, with each one of us benefiting from the strength of our union.

So what has been this vision’s history?

Karl Marx sought to build on the “one for all” or equality part, which was called “communism.” It ultimately didn’t work in Russia, China or Vietnam, because all of them found they also needed capitalism to encourage individual incentive.

Here, the “all for one” or individuality part has helped build this nation. However, while the Civil War ended slavery, it did not empower “one for all” equality. So America’s emphasis on individuality has made it a semi-aristocracy, with the rich getting richer and the poor, poorer.

Our democracy today is like a man standing on two legs. One – individuality – is vibrant, experienced and strongly favored. The other – equality – is weak, inexperienced and largely ignored.

In the past, the individuality leg had more than enough strength to support this nation and internalize its conflicts. But the complexity of modern life today has exceeded its strength, hence all the infighting and injustice.

The powerful effort for racial justice can help strengthen the equality leg. But we need a much deeper effort, like changing our schools. They primarily need to teach students how to support each other, rather than compete with each other. Competition – reaffirmed by the use of grades and test scores – is why bullying, cheating and now school shootings are out of control.

Truly respecting the two democratic principles generates synergy, a stronger approach to student development, because others see our best and our unique potential in ways we do not. So by helping others – particularly those most unlike ourselves – we grow in both our giving and receiving.

This education respects the student’s natural growth, encouraging unity and eliminating defensiveness, while unleashing motivation in individual achievement – thus strengthening the two democratic principles.

Fifty-four years ago, I founded a boarding school to test an education based on those two principles and it worked. Now it works in various public school communities as well.

Given our present attitudes, we will at first view individualism as freedom and equality as a responsibility. But time will teach us to appreciate the deeper powers – inherent in helping one another – of equality.


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